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The Baptist Pastor Turned Senator Behind This Week’s Failed Border Bill

After Republicans greenlit—then spiked—a bipartisan deal, evangelicals are still waiting for a solution to address the migrant crisis.
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The Baptist Pastor Turned Senator Behind This Week’s Failed Border Bill
Image: Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Senator James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma

Senator Jim Lankford didn’t sign up to lead the charge on one of the most contentious issues before Congress.

But after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appointed him to develop a deal to address the migrant crisis—a contingency for the House passing emergency aid to Ukraine and Israel—the Oklahoma Republican got to work. He spent four months meeting with Democrat Sen. Chris Murphy and Independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema to put together a deal.

Those careful efforts came crashing down this week when his own party and former president Donald Trump dismissed the package. The sound bites were harsh: “a very bad bill,” “even worse than we expected,” “worse than bad negotiation,” and “betrayal.”

While his role as the lead Republican negotiator represents one of his biggest moments in the political spotlight, evangelicals may recognize Lankford. The 55-year-old conservative is a churchgoing Baptist, a former pastor, and an outspoken advocate for religious freedom.

He’s known for putting faith and service before political grandstanding. Some hoped he’d be successful at negotiating a deal on an issue that’s becoming a bigger concern for evangelicals, most of whom want to see improved border security and a path to citizenship for immigrants.

“Lankford is just a really good man. He’s solid. He’s a devoted Christian,” said Dan Darling, director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. “He has a real sense of calling. … I think he literally felt like he was going to Washington to try and do what he can to solve problems.”

The National Association of Evangelicals came out in support of the bill before the failed vote. In a statement on Monday, the association encouraged lawmakers to “carefully study the Lankford-Murphy-Sinema text. While some aspects of the bill raise concerns, and there are some missing pieces (notably a permanent solution for Dreamers), that is not a reason to dismiss the proposal out of hand.”

“As people of faith we pray for all our leaders as they fulfill their God-given responsibilities,” the statement continued. “The nation is watching.”

Prior to Lankford’s entrance to public office, the 55-year-old Oklahoman served for two decades as a youth minister. He felt called into ministry while he was still in high school. He spent the better part of 20 years working at the youth program at Falls Creek, a Christian youth camp.

His foray into politics came when he read that his local congresswoman was leaving office. He told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “It’s as if it jumped off the page and I heard God say, ‘That’s what I want you to do.’” He was elected to the House in 2011 and to the Senate in 2015. His most recent reelection was in 2022.

“He rolls up his sleeves,” Warren Cole Smith, author and president of the evangelical watchdog organization MinistryWatch, told CT. “He understands that if you want to get something done, you are going to have to convince people who don’t agree with you.”

Smith, who has interviewed Lankford a few times over the years, said Lankford tends to avoid “a lot of the bombastic, God-and-country rhetoric that we’ve since become all too familiar with among, you know, sort of a populist wing of the Republican Party. And I was impressed by that. This was a guy that was going to do his best to live according to Christian principles. But he was not going to be a showboat or be pretentious.”

In the pulpit, he was never the fire-and-brimstone type. In Washington too, he’s avoided rhetorical bomb-throwing, instead earning a reputation as a workhorse that has gained respect from his colleagues across the aisle as well.

“We agree on almost exactly nothing. [Lankford’s] a very conservative man,” Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, told CT. “But he’s a really good guy.”

Coons chairs the Senate Ethics Committee, of which Lankford is the highest-ranking Republican. The two served as honorary co-chairs of the National Prayer Breakfast in 2019 (Coons is Presbyterian).

“it's gotta be disappointing to put in this much work, and to now have been [censured] by the Oklahoma Republican Party,” Coons added. “This place doesn't work without compromise and consensus. And there are demonstrably members now who only want to blow things up. And who don't really want a result on anything.”

But congeniality hasn’t inculcated Lankford from being singed by the nation’s increasingly heated partisan politics. On Wednesday, when a procedural vote on the border deal came up, Lankford said in a floor speech that a well-known right-wing commentator told him, “If you try to move a bill that solves the border crisis during this presidential year, I will do whatever I can to destroy you, because I do not want you to solve this during the presidential election.”

Senators rejected the measure by a 49 to 50 vote. The chamber’s rule requires 60 votes for overcoming a filibuster. And the conservative commentator who threatened to try and “destroy him”? Lankford refused to name names but said that the person has “been faithful to their promise and have done everything they can to destroy me in the past several weeks.”

The immigration issue has been a political hang-up for a long time: laws haven’t been updated in almost 40 years, leaving presidents to rely on executive orders to wrangle surges at the southern border; an overburdened immigration court system; burgeoning waitlists of asylum claims; and the unresolved question of how to handle millions of undocumented immigrants.

Previous bipartisan attempts at congressional action have crumbled, often due to political pressure. In the recent attempt, the immigration-related provisions were more of a border crackdown than a comprehensive reform.

The text didn’t include a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally. Previously, Democrats had refused to consider legislation that didn’t address protections for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, also known as Dreamers.

Among other provisions, the legislation would have put a higher bar in place for migrants to request asylum and would have sped up the deportation process for migrants who don’t qualify. It also would have required adjudications on asylum cases to be issued within six months. (The process currently can take as long as ten years.) It also allocated funds to hire more border patrol agents.

The deal drew criticism from progressive lawmakers and immigration advocacy groups. Despite pressure from the Left, the Biden White House signaled that the president would sign it, releasing a statement saying it represented “the toughest and fairest set of border reforms in decades.” Meanwhile, conservative critics of the bill said it didn’t do enough to stop border crossings.

In defending the bill, Lankford said he believes it was subject to “a remarkable amount of misinformation”; “either people did not read the bill, didn’t follow it, or they … saw some posting on Facebook and believe that.”

While immigration reform is always a challenge, an attempt to tackle the topic was bound to face tough political winds during an election year. “Let’s say time-out and let the American people decide how we want to deal with this in November, when we have President Trump—who actually had control of our border—against President Biden,” Rep. Jim Jordan said on Fox Business. “Let the country decide.”

Republicans have made clear that they don’t want to give Biden a political win: RealClearPolling shows that he has a 63 percent disapproval rating on the issue of immigration. In his campaign, Trump pledges to be tough on enforcement.

Meanwhile, Democrats blamed partisanship for the effort imploding.

“We now have a definitive answer as to whether the Republican Party really wants to fix the border. They don’t. They have become addicted to just using the issue of immigration as a political wedge and an election year issue,” Murphy, the lead Democrat negotiator, toldThe Washington Post after the vote.

On Sunday, there were 20 to 25 Senate Republicans who would potentially support the bill, according to Murphy. But on Wednesday, only four Republicans voted to advance the measure.

“What would they do on their weekends if they couldn’t drag cameras down to the border to show off how disastrous it is? What would they give speeches about if we actually fixed the border?” Murphy asked rhetorically.

Some Republicans also expressed frustration with the party politics. “I followed the instructions of my conference, who were insisting that we tackle this in October,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday. “I mean, it’s actually our side that wanted to tackle the border issue. We started it.”

Even as Congress remains stalled on immigration, polls show that growing numbers of American evangelicals want something to be done to address the country’s broken immigration system.

In a 2015 Lifeway survey, 61 percent of self-identified evangelicals responded that they were in favor of a pathway to citizenship for immigrants; by 2022, the number had ticked up to 77 percent. Among evangelicals who said they attended church at least once a week, it was 82 percent in favor.

Evangelicals reported favoring a bipartisan immigration deal that would pair border security with allowing undocumented immigrants to seek citizenship if they met certain requirements, such as paying a fine and passing a criminal background check.

Some evangelicals said they hope this most recent stalemate doesn’t prevent people of faith from continuing to engage on the tough issue.

“Immigration is an issue that should strike very close to the heart of any Christian in this country,” Smith said. “If we care for the least and the lost, that has got to include the immigrant. And for Christians not to be actively involved in trying to solve this problem is cowardly.”

Darling argued that the week shows the need for more Christians to get involved in politics, following Lankford’s example.

“It seems, right now, that the most extreme and shrill voices are the ones that have their voices heard because a lot of other folks just don’t get involved,” he said. “I actually think this means Christians should be involved. … I think when we leave the arena, it cedes it to the most extreme voices on both sides.”

As of the time of publication, Lankford’s office had not returned a request for comment.

January/February
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